Velma has been surrounded by controversy since it was first announced. Naturally the usual suspects decried the show for offering a racially-diverse take on the classic Mysteries Incorporated gang, but a large number of classic Scooby-Doo fans protested the very idea of a mature take on Scooby-Doo without the titular talking dog. Partly because it’s hardly original and everyone from Kevin Smith to James Gunn have milked that cow for all it is worth. Partly because dark reboots of children’s properties are overdone and the last thing the world needs is someone using the Scooby-Doo characters to create the next Wednesday or Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
The good news is that Velma seems to be satirizing its own existence and deconstructing dark reboots instead of going for all the obvious jokes about Velma being a closeted lesbian or Shaggy being a stoner. The bad news is that the execution is clumsy and most of the humor is mean-spirited. To make matters worse, there’s very little, apart from some character names and designs, that is recognizable as being tied to the classic series that is presumably meant to lure fans in to Velma.
The story centers around Crystal Cove High and the serial killer that is stalking the most pretty and popular girls. Amateur sleuth Velma Dinkley (Mindy Kaling) is singled out as the prime suspect, due to her antagonistic relationship with that clique, particularly her former best friend, Daphne Blake (Constance Wu). This leaves Velma needing to prove her innocence, despite suffering from delusional panic attacks whenever she is confronted with a mystery, following the disappearance of her mother. Her only help in this mission is her friend Norville Rogers (Sam Richardson). Her biggest obstacle is local pretty boy Fred Jones (Glenn Howerton), who has his own secrets that seem to be tied to both her cases.
The opening scene establishes early on that this is not a child-friendly cartoon, being set in a high school girls’ locker room, with the obligatory sudsy catfight and the discovery of a dead body with the brain scooped out. The catfight is prompted by a discussion of how television pilots always have more gratuitous sex and violence than the rest of the first season to hook viewer interest. I can appreciate the point intellectually, but the producers are shooting themselves in the foot by making this point while flaunting the bare buttocks of teenage girls. You can’t call out the tropes and then exploit the same tropes. Particularly when the later episodes try to set up a romantic subplot between Daphne and Velma.
The damnable thing is how many parts of Velma ALMOST work. There’s a good story under all the snark and I honestly did laugh at some of the jokes, such as Norville’s observation that all his classmates seem incredibly calm in the wake of the revelation that one of their classmates is a serial killer. While this is used to establish that Crystal Cove has serious problems with drug abuse, it is also an amusing meta-commentary on just how muted the public response is in shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Smallville, where multiple people at the same school seem to vanish under mysterious circumstances every week and hardly anybody notices.
You need more than observational humor for a good sitcom, however, and Velma doesn’t have much more than that.
I will say the voice-acting is top notch, with Sam Richardson’s Norville being the standout character. And yet, the reason Norville works so well is that he’s the one genuinely likeable character in the core cast. He’s also the most greatly changed from the original Scooby-Doo, being an ambitious aspiring journalist rather than the laid-back slacker Shaggy is usually portrayed as. About the only thing they have in common is a taste for exotic foods, but Norville is a refined foodie who podcasts about his favorite obscure Asian snacks rather than a bottomless pit with a cast-iron stomach.
Maybe we’ll get a spin-off series centered around him? I’d find that preferable to another season of Velma. It isn’t painfully bad, but it should have been so much better with the talent involved. In the end, I have to agree with those who wondered who this show was made for, because the Scooby-Doo fans will rightly avoid it on principle and the people who don’t like Scooby-Doo are unlikely to watch a show inspired by Scooby-Doo where most of the jokes are making fun of Scooby-Doo, the people who like Scooby-Doo and pointing out all the reasons why dark reboots of kids’ shows are a bad idea by being a bad example.